Pure goodness tends to be less dramatic than evil -- or even ordinary human frailty. It's a truism that Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost is far more interesting than his God. Gabriel's Daughter tells the story of Clara Brown, a pioneering Colorado figure who endured slavery, was freed, and devoted the remainder of her life to good works. The libretto, by William Luce, is well put together, and the plot moves along easily. You're never surprised, deeply moved or jolted out of your seat, but you're never bored, either. The show feels like a colorful, historical pageant, buoyed by the warmly flowing, pleasurably accessible and sometimes very beautiful music of Henry Mollicone.
Gabriel's Daughter begins with a slave auction during which Clara is separated from her husband and her child, Eliza Jane. Though the opera doesn't shy away from depicting the horrors of slavery, it doesn't dwell on them. We learn nothing of Clara's experiences as a slave (perhaps there's little on record), and pretty soon, she's told by her owner's tearful and affectionate wife and daughter that he has died, and she is free. She leaves immediately for the West in search of Eliza Jane.
There's a hint of evil here, when Clara encounters Colonel John Chivington, who loathes Native Americans and plots with Colorado politicians to make the state more attractive to settlers through what amounts to ethnic cleansing. Later Clara learns of his role in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre. Though her reproaches are brief and dignified, we're given to understand that he's somewhat abashed by them. None of the music is ugly or dissonant however, and Chad Shelton, who plays Chivington, has a tenor that melts your heart. If you disregard his words, the trio he sings with Clara and another freed slave, Barney Ford (Alfred Walker, a fine baritone), is more gorgeous than ominous.
It's fun to track the historical and local references in Gabriel's Daughter. The opera is thronged with gold miners, whores and politicos. The first editor of the Rocky Mountain News puts in an appearance. It's all pure Americana, and the music pays homage to movie Westerns, Broadway shows, gospel, Aaron Copland. There's even a moment of Jewish liturgical chant -- delivered by a guilt-ridden Jewish miner patronizing the whorehouse.
Gabriel's Daughter is brilliantly conducted by John Moriarty, Central City's artistic director emeritus. This is fitting. When the company decided to commission an original opera by Mollicone -- whose The Face on the Barroom Floor has been part of CCO's summer season for 25 years -- it was Moriarty who shepherded the idea to its completion.
Lori Brown Mirabal, who plays Clara, has a rich, full mezzo-soprano. She's also a wonderful actress. The role may be somewhat one dimensional as written, but she breathes life and feeling into it. When her voice joins with the soaring soprano of Sumayya Ali, who sings the long-lost Eliza Jane, the result is magical.
So magical, unfortunately, that it moved the woman sitting directly in front of me to start unwrapping a candy. Slowly and deliberately. Crinkle. Crinkle. Crinkle. When she finally had the thing freed, I breathed a sigh of relief. Ali and Mirabal's singing came back into clear, heavenly focus. The woman handed the sweet to her husband and began unwrapping a second.
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